BULGARIAN MAJORITY. (Maggioranza bulgara)

Russia and Bulgaria signed on Saturday accords to push ahead with the South Stream natural gas pipeline aimed to deliver gas to central and south Europe and cement Moscow's hold on European energy supplies.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Bulgarian counterpart Boiko Borisov attended the signing of accords to set up a joint venture for the Bulgarian section of the project aimed at shipping Russian gas under the Black Sea to Europe.

'Today, a shareholder accord and a charter of the joint venture were signed. By doing this, we made one more serious step towards implementation of mutual agreements,' Putin told a news conference in Sofia where he arrived on a working visit.

The South Stream pipeline, controlled by Gazprom and Italy's ENI is planned to transport up to 63 billion cubic meters of gas to central and south Europe, bypassing countries such as Ukraine, at the end of 2015.

The link, in which French EDF is set to get a stake of no less than 10 percent, is a rival to the European Union-backed Nabucco pipeline, designed to bring gas from central Asia and the Middle East and reduce Europe's dependence on Russian deliveries.

Russia, the world's largest energy exporter, supplies Europe with a quarter of its gas needs. Analysts estimate European demand for Russian gas could rise to 30 percent by 2030.

Brussels and Moscow have been competing to sign up potential countries and suppliers for their projects.
The European Union member Bulgaria supports both projects, which are planned to run through its territory and has expressed concerns over delays in the Nabucco pipeline development.

'We are also working on the Nabucco pipeline with the same speed ... Bulgaria's interest is to transit gas through both pipelines,' Borisov told reporters.

His government, which put on review all Russian-backed energy projects last July, pledged to speed up work on South Stream after Gazprom promised to lower gas prices for Bulgaria, almost fully dependent on Russian gas supplies.

The Balkan country agreed to further accelerate work on the project in October, when Gazprom indicated South Stream could bypass it and run through Romania.

South Stream has also secured backing from Austria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia.

Gazprom and state-controlled Bulgarian Energy Holding, which will have 50/50 stakes in the new venture, have already opened a tender to seek contractors for a feasibility study for the Bulgarian section, estimated to cost $835 million.

Bulgaria secures about 70 percent of its energy needs through imports. It gets almost all of its gas from Gazprom, its only nuclear power plant Kozloduy is Soviet-made and its only operational oil refinery is owned by Russia's LUKOIL.

Putin said LUKOIL was set to invest up to $2 billion more in its Bourgas-based oil refinery, Lukoil Neftochim.
Bulgaria and Russia also discussed the Belene nuclear power plant project, which Sofia had also put on hold due to a lack of funding and strategic partners.

Sofia has said it will push ahead with the 2,000 megawatt plant, for which it has contracted Russia's state Atomstroyexport, only if backed by strategic European investors.

Borisov has indicated Bulgaria is close to finding a partner in Germany for Belene, estimated to cost over 7 billion euros.

Bulgaria's warming towards the projects has irked Washington and Brussels which are encouraging Bulgaria to lessen its heavy energy dependence on Russia.

Belene froze last November, when German energy giant RWE , which had agreed on a 49 percent stake, pulled out.

Sofia wants to build Belene so as not to lose hundreds of millions of euros it has already invested and to avoid paying hefty compensation to the Russian contractor, Atomstroyexport.
(XE, via Reuters)

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